Today I met up with A.S and A. at Laurent Bernard Chocolatier to have a good catching up, and the conversation that we struck up really resounded with the very core of who I am.
We talked about Lasallian Leadership Training Camps (in which selected students with ‘leadership potential’ are sent to for an introduction in effective leadership- but this camp is essentially an indoctrination into a group that is increasingly gravitating away from its ideals). Having been participants and facilitators for these camps, the three of us realized how pointless and how hypocritical we had all become- yes, I admit, even I have drifted away from my own definition of a Lasallian.
Lasallians have all been taught to live in the spirit of Faith, Service, and Community- and although I’m an agnostic, I do strongly believe in these three things- but faith in the sense that I have a strong belief in an ideal, not God. I believe in all these things. Our school emphasizes the values of SMILES: spirituality, mutual respect, internationalism, leadership, experience and service- all of which I heavily believe in.
But we’ve been deluding ourselves. We aren’t living the Lasallian mission. We aren’t living our lives the way La Salle or any of these good-intentioned founders intended it to be. We’re not being people for others, we’re being people for ourselves.
A.S. very aptly described it as ‘Stalin preaching democracy.’ Everything has become increasingly Animal-Farm-esque. Plagued by a sense of elitism when we’re trying to promote egalitarianism, whilst preaching the ideal of helping ‘the lost, the last, and the least.’ I didn’t realize that this elitism existed in our leadership camps, but the facade has become more and more obvious.
It’s going in a completely warped and twisted direction. People are doing service and speaking about leadership for the sake of recognition- they are gravitating away from the spirit of service: they do things just for the sake of doing them, for being able to say that they are caring people with a heart, to get their SMILES award, their CAS points, whatever it is they want to achieve- all the wrong reasons.
I realize I might sound hypocritical, but this is a reality that has been ravaging pretty much any good cause in recent years. But then, people ask, why does it matter? Service is still service: people still benefit from what we do- why does it matter what the motive is?
It matters to me.
It matters to me.
It matters to me.
I know I’ve used triplets and repetition for emphasis: no, this is not a rationale or literary analysis of my own words, but the fact is- I really have to keep repeating it to myself: not to delude myself, but to keep myself grounded. The reality is, it doesn’t matter to people anymore. They speak of community, they speak of the greater good- but they’re all empty words. A picturesque view painted over a barren wasteland.
They don’t think that our motivation for service matters. That don’t understand what drives us makes a difference, even if the consequence is the same. They haven’t accepted that the end does not justify the means.
I’ve been blabbering about doing service for the right reasons, but what is my reason? Why do I help the less fortunate? WHY? Clearly I get some gratification from the thanks that I receive, but why do I do what I do? It goes much deeper than that. My parents came from humble beginnings. They paid for their own education/ received scholarships, and literally made their money from scratch. If they hadn’t gotten those scholarships, my dad would’ve been stuck in a random village in the middle of rural Malaysia. If my grandparents hadn’t escaped from China during the World War, we’d be rice farming in the middle of rural China. For all you know, I could’ve been born into a poor tribe in Botswana! What changed my life and the lives of my parents and grandparents is that they had an opportunity- and they seized it. If that one decision wasn’t made- if my great grandmother hadn’t moved to Singapore, if my grandparents hadn’t become teachers, if my dad hadn’t given up on his entire engineering degree and went into business and finance in GIC, if we hadn’t moved to Shanghai- I would be an entirely different person in very different economic and social conditions. I wouldn’t be meeting A.S and A in Laurent Bernard but in a hawker center; at any rate, I might not even know them! And this is what changed our lives: an opportunity. An education. Education really was their path to a better standard of life, an open-minded view, and an affluent and secure home! Education made all the difference.
The Singaporean government knows this- they’ve given everyone access to a good education: more than most of the world can ask for.
But what they lack is the nurturing of the heart. Christian schools tend to do more of that, but then again even the purest of ideals can eventually become warped. Education is the basic building block to success, a better quality of life, and education has the power to change lives. Our system of meritocracy is good to a certain extent- but too much of any one thing is never a good thing.
People have lost sight of where they’ve come from. What was it that Obama said in one of the speeches during the Democratic Convention last year? That when one door opens for you, you cross the threshold and then turn back to help others through. That you don’t leave other people behind.
Education made all the difference in my parent’s lives. It did so much for me. For us. And that’s why education is my passion- and I know I may be passionate about many things (maths, literature, food, tennis, etc- all things that would not be possible without a certain level of affluence and education)- but what keeps me grounded instead of up in the air with the esoteric group of people that simply discuss their mathematical theories and literary critiques, is my belief that education is the key- and I really passionately believe other people should have the same chance that I had, that I have.
This is my conviction. These are OUR dreams.
I’m so incredibly lucky to have parents that exposed me to a better life and introduced me to varied career options, life choices- whilst emphasizing that I should keep grounded and give back to society. So very lucky for my social background. So very lucky for everything.
And so I wish to teach my children what my parents have taught me. My mom stopped her law career to put her skills to use in a charity organization. My parents donate to NUS, their alma mater- a scholarship from NUS was their opportunity. And therefore, I want to instill in my children the same ideals they instilled in me- to give back to society. I live a very privileged life- I paint oil paintings, I count reviewing restaurants as a hobby, and I indulge in film photography. Things that an average student couldn’t afford to do. I have to keep myself grounded and down-to-earth by constantly reminding myself that any little difference in history- and I mightn’t even have this privilege.
I have trust in myself that I will remain grounded.
I hope I will. And I hope my children will be the same: but then there’s this Chinese saying that 富不过三代- the wealth is always squandered away in the third generation. My parents have asserted that they will not leave any of their wealth to me- they’ll donate what they have back to society, and I agree wholeheartedly with their plans. But what about my future children? My parents have experienced the hunger of being poor firsthand, and have related it to us- but my children?
It’s foolish of me to worry about non-existent offspring, but what I’m trying to say is that I’m worried about society. People are gravitating away from the real spirit of service, gravitating away from the real reason of solidarity with the poor. Even I am.
I do what I do because I know it can make a difference. I know I haven’t been doing much, not as much as I want to- because I have my own education to pursue. I haven’t been doing much, also because I see no point in pointless service- in going to old folks homes for two hours, volunteering to play games with old men that don’t appreciate our presence… How much difference can we make in their lives this way? This holds testament to our warped motives- we’re supposed to be helping them, but all we’re doing is using them as an excuse to feel better about ourselves, to fulfill our SMILES and CAS hours [all of which were implemented to promote these values, but ended up stretched into a virtually unrecognizable state- like LY- and that’s why I’ve taken a backseat there. I don’t believe in their ideals anymore. People just do things to show that we are ‘good’ and ‘lasallian’ and ‘caring’- but that’s not the point of service. They don’t really care which charity it goes to, who we help- as long as they can say that they’re helping someone.]
If we want to make a difference, we have to make a decisive difference. One that truly changes people’s lives.
Why does it matter what drives us to do service, to do what is essentially Lasallian?
Because it matters when we care.
It cannot be forced; it cannot be coerced- it must be realized.
I grew up in a Lutheran school, an American Christian school that was very focused on character, morals, and being a kind person whom loves everyone. I had the kindest teacher with the most heartwarming soul- and she told my mom: ‘Ruru has a heart of gold- she always has high expectations of herself, but yet never fails encourage weaker students. Although sometimes she can be disappointed with her achievements, she makes sure that she applauds everyone else’s.’
That’s the kind of person I was when I was a kid. That’s the kind of person I would like to remain.
This is what holds my life together, although I may not speak of it. Maths, literature, food, tennis, all my other passions should be secondary even though they may dominate my life at this point in time. But are they? I disappear into different worlds in my books, marvel at the power of abstract mathematics, but can I still sympathize with the unfortunate despite all these esoteric pursuits? Yes. I sympathize because they haven’t had the chance to experience this. Experience the beauty of language, the allure of mathematics…
I know my reasons may not be the most coherent, and I’m not condemning the other people who have different reasons for their service. I’m not saying that they don’t care; they do. But recognition for themselves plays a huge part- and I think that defies the whole point of service.
The Lasallian mission is not essentially Catholic or Christian: it’s an universal value. SMILES, faith, service, community- they may draw its roots from Christian beliefs, but they’re still essentially values. I’m a ‘Christian who doesn’t believe in God’, basically.
These values have been so methodically droned on about; they have lost their meaning.
I realize now that this is who I’ve been trying to find in myself. Why I’ve identified so much with SJI International and yet felt so distant at times.
This is who I’ve been trying to identify with, long before joining SJII. It’s been my duty. It’s been everyone’s duty. Compassion is what makes us distinctly human.
So this, this passion, this love- this want to help others to their own future- to give others the same opportunity that has been handed to us, whether by a god or deity, by destiny, by chance, or whatever we put our faith in:
This is what it means to be Lasallian.
Not doing things because of the ‘power’, because of the ‘glory’, because of the even more subtle ‘gratification’ that we get out of it because we feel as if we’re good people. Just like how some people donate money to buy off their guilt at not helping others enough, we’re just doing service to convince ourselves we’re worthy of praise.
When I do service I don’t want to prove that I’m a better person. I want to help people.
Is that the right reason? I don’t know. Is there even a right or wrong reason? Does it matter?
I don’t know whether it matters to you, but this is my idea of being a Lasallian. Helping other people for them, not for me.
And this, is what I hope the Lasallian mission will continue to be.